Examining Relationships Up Close: An In-depth Look at Couples' Everyday Stress Hormones and Health Habits

Dr. Theresa Pauly | Gerontology, Simon Fraser University 

Friday November 3rd, 2023

Saywell Hall 10051, Burnaby 

Abstract: Social relationships are known to exert both positive and negative influences on health and well-being, with these effects becoming particularly pronounced in old age. This talk delves into a series of studies that explore various aspects of interpersonal dynamics among older couples. The first set of studies investigates older couples’ interconnectedness in their stress hormone levels (i.e., cortisol) in daily life. Specifically, using data from older couples in Vancouver, Canada, and Berlin, Germany, I examine associations between cortisol synchrony and social bonding (e.g., feeling understood, seeking closeness) in everyday life. Furthermore, I explore the consequences of cortisol synchrony on relationship satisfaction and cholesterol levels over a 3-year period. Shifting gears, a second set of studies investigates older couples’ interconnectedness in their health behaviours. First, I highlight the importance of social factors in physical activity by showing that being active with a partner is linked to higher levels of daily physical activity for individuals after stroke. Furthermore, I demonstrate that couples show hourly dyadic covariation in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) and sedentary behavior in their daily lives. However, I also show that shared health-compromising behaviors (e.g., smoking, being sedentary) can be associated with increased daily closeness and relationship satisfaction, emphasizing that problematic behaviors might be maintained by relationship functions. In summary, these studies shed light on the intricate interplay between stress physiology and health habits in the lives of aging couples.

About Dr. Theresa Pauly: Dr. Theresa Pauly, Assistant Professor, studies how psychosocial factors shape health and wellbeing across the adult lifespan. She completed her PhD in daily stress hormone secretion in older couples at the University of British Columbia, Canada, in 2020 and worked as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, from 2020 to 2022. Her work is interdisciplinary – in psychology, gerontology, physiology – and as such she has expertise in health and aging from a biopsychosocial perspective, including interconnections between biomarkers of health (e.g., cortisol levels), psychological aspects of well-being (e.g., affective states), and daily social contexts (e.g., solitude). As Canada Research Chair in Social Relationships, Health, and Aging, Dr. Pauly combines the analysis of longer-term health and wellbeing trajectories (based on longitudinal data collected over many years) with short-term self-report data (experiential results collected over a period of days/weeks) to identify: pivotal social resources that support older adults’ health; risk and protective factors to address the pervasive challenge of loneliness in old age; and social risks and resources for health in older adults who belong to equity-seeking groups.